Financial pressures and global competition are likely to push more universities into mergers spanning international borders, with a union between a top UK and US institution happening within five years, a higher education legal expert has predicted.
Glynne Stanfield, a partner at Eversheds who leads the firm’s international education practice, told Times Higher Education that different types of institution would look to join up for different reasons, but that the trend likely to emerge was towards consolidation.
Mr Stanfield, who advised on the merger that created the University of Manchester, predicted that leading universities may consider international mergers in order to boost their reputation and recruitment power.
“At the top end of the market, the Russell Group and the elite, I think there will be a merger between a top UK university and a US university in the next five years,” he said. “I think they will do it not for money but for reputational gain.
“They will get the league table performance, and the ability to tap into a broader staff and student base than at the moment.”
Mr Stanfield said that the potential to offer UK and US degrees on a “two-for-the-price-of-one” basis would prove attractive, particularly to students from Asia.
UK universities’ hand may be further pushed towards mergers if a change in policy that allows US universities to use overseas recruitment agents accelerates international recruitment on the other side of the Atlantic, he added.
In contrast, it is likely to be money problems that drive less selective institutions into mergers, said Mr Stanfield, who also advised on the amalgamation process that created the University of Wales Trinity Saint David.
He predicted that post-92 universities would look to outsource services, to relocate them offshore, or to share them with other institutions, as has already been witnessed with the joint venture between Falmouth University and the University of Exeter.
But Mr Stanfield said that, with severe government funding cuts expected, the economies of scale offered by a merger would likely prove even more attractive.
Private providers may be among those interested in taking over not-for-profit institutions, he said.
And mergers may take place across devolved administrations, Mr Stanfield added, potentially opening up the possibility for universities to take advantage of conflicting policy initiatives in different countries. That would raise questions of whether, for example, a Scottish university with a campus in England could be eligible for support from both funding councils and what level of fees students would pay.
“A major part of our work at the moment is looking at the interplay between funding rules in England, Scotland and Wales,” Mr Stanfield said. “As the rules start to diverge more and more, it becomes quite key.”
However, these trends may take time to emerge. An Eversheds report predicted in 2009 that mergers between US and UK universities could become commonplace, but there has not yet been one.